My dog will always be a puppy to me—playful, rambunctious, and forever young, despite the increasing gray hairs around his mouth. But I read something recently that’s making me rethink my denial. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Web site, dogs enter the “geriatric” phase around six or seven years of age. My dog definitely falls into that category, so it’s time to give some thought to his golden years.
Like humans, dogs and cats develop different needs as they age and require more care and attention. So what steps should pet owners take to make sure their little ones ease gracefully and comfortably into old age?
What’s Considered Old?
Cats and dogs age at a faster rate than humans. Generally, cats between the ages of thirteen and seventeen are entering the elderly stage of their lives. With dogs, it varies based on breed and size. For the most part, smaller dogs tend to outlive bigger ones, but their overall life span averages about twelve years.
How Do They Change?
Pets are like people, in that when they get older, they move a little slower and crave extra sleep instead of playtime. They’re more subdued and prefer hanging out around the house with their owners rather than embarking on extended outdoor adventures. (This is particularly true for cats, who are wanderers by nature.) Behavioral changes like these are common with age and not necessarily a cause for alarm.
Their digestive systems also change over time. As they get older, cats have a hard time efficiently digesting two big meals a day. Veterinarians recommend smaller, frequent meals throughout the day instead. Sense of smell is also affected by age, so what dogs and cats prefer to eat is subject to change as well. Some pet food manufacturers make food especially for the older crowd; it contains proteins that are easily broken down and necessary nutrients for animals that are less active. Since elderly pets also have more dental issues—tartar buildup and teeth falling out are two of the most common problems—canned, wet food might be easier for them to eat than dry food. However, it’s best to consult your vet before making any dietary changes.
What’s a Pet Owner to Do?
Older pets are more sensitive to their environment—everything from loud noises to temperature changes can affect their comfort levels. But their transition to old age needn’t be anxiety-ridden or difficult as long as you know what to expect and how to respond.
Make trips to the vet a priority.
Aging can weaken immune systems, so dogs and cats are more vulnerable to diseases. Schedule regular checkups and keep up with vaccinations to prevent illnesses.
Incorporate moderate exercise into their daily lives.
They may not be as agile or prone to running bursts, but that doesn’t mean movement is any less important. Weight gain is a problem among older dogs and can cause a host of medical issues. (Cats tend to lose fat as they age, which is a different, but no less serious, issue.) Take dogs on regular walks and play with cats, but keep the exertion level appropriate; their bodies tire more quickly.
Look into new foods.
Pets’ digestive systems change, as may their nutritional needs. Talk to the vet and find out what he or she recommends in terms of dietary changes.
Become a groomer.
This is more for cats than dogs, since they’re responsible for keeping themselves clean for most of their lives. As they get older, their grooming habits become more lax, which can create matted fur, fleas, and other problems. Give cats a daily brushing to get rid of dead hair and keep their fur clean and smooth. As always, dogs should be bathed regularly.
Pay attention to the nails on dogs and cats as well. Since they’re not as active, their nails won’t wear down as quickly, meaning that nail-cutting should be more frequent.
Consider their sleeping conditions.
Your dog might’ve liked sleeping outside as a puppy, but as he ages, he and his feline friends are more sensitive to temperature. Older animals don’t do well in extreme heat or cold, so if their beds are outside or in colder areas of your house, think about moving them elsewhere. If cold is the problem, there are heating pads designed for pets.
In terms of bedding, some pet stores also sell beds specially designed for arthritic or aging pets.
Pay attention to behavioral changes.
People’s personalities, likes, and dislikes change throughout the years and so do their pets’. However, some changes could be indicative of illness, so if the changes occur rapidly or are uncharacteristic, it’s worth talking to your vet about. Examples of behaviors that are potential symptoms of diseases include accidents (if the animal is already housetrained), change in sleep patterns, decreased or increased thirst or appetite, aggression, and so forth. If your pet’s personality has become unrecognizable, there could be more going on than just aging.
Pet owners should always keep in contact with veterinarians to maintain their pets’ health and make sure they’re taking proper care of them as they advance in age. Unfortunately, dogs and cats can’t tell if us anything’s wrong, which makes knowing what to expect and anticipating the needs of our furry friends of the upmost importance.